Monday, July 29, 2013

"Created in the image of God"

"Created in the image of God"

I thought I would take a moment to share my spiritual journey pre-enlightenment and post-enlightenment. Enlightenment may be the wrong word, but it sounds better than something else.

I have been Catholic my entire life, and still go to a Catholic Church, but over the past year my mind regarding spirituality has shifted. Through deep introspection and examination I have come to the conclusion that what I used to think about religion, and divinity in general, has, well, changed.

I would say the biggest change is my open-mindedness towards other faiths and belief systems. I have intentionally sought, and found; asked, and received – mostly in religious terms, but also regarding life in general.

I have thought about writing a book about my preconceived notions of Biblical scripture before my awakening and re-examining them after. Spiritual awakening, that’s a good term - probably more appropriate than “enlightenment” for this transformation.

Through my studies and self-reflection I have determined all faiths share one eternal truth – we all contain a soul, spirit, true-self that goes beyond the physical. This Being is immortal and has always been and will always be. It will continue long after we are gone from this Earth. This idea was easy to grasp and straight forward, but it led me to begin asking other questions.

During this journey I began contemplating God, what He is, how He is, where He is, who He is. I looked to the Bible, ancient Hindu texts, the wisdom of Buddha, and others. I found again that no matter what religion someone professes to believe is the truth, they all shared the same answer.

God is eternal. God is everywhere. God always has been and always will be. God is light. God is love. In other words, God isn’t an old man with a white beard. I don’t know how that image came to be, but it’s more appropriate for describing Zeus or some other mythological being.

Before I began this process of searching for answers I probably would have described God as a man with a beard that sits in the clouds. I’m sure many others would as well; and probably still do. I, on the other hand, have completely transformed my vision of God.

Today I view him as an invisible source of energy that fills the universe – creator of all that is seen and unseen. This realization led me to pursue this path further. While in meditation one morning a question and ultimately an answer came to mind. The question was based on an accepted theological question by many spiritual teachers, scholars, and believers.

It originated from a simple, yet profound, Bible verse. I thought about my revelation of what God is, and it reminded me of the Book of Genesis. Specifically, Genesis 1:26-27. Genesis states:

1:26 And he said: "Let us make Man to our image and likeness..."  
1:27 And God created man to his own image; to the image of God he created him; male and female, he created them."

Knowing what I know God to be, if we are created by God in his image, then we must be an eternal, spiritual, all-loving being also. However, if we look at this from a worldly view we may differ. So in essence, to rectify this situation, we can’t look at ourselves from a purely worldly view.

In other words, we aren’t what we see. We aren’t what we do. We aren’t what we experience. We are more than that. We aren’t our bodies. If we we’re truly created in God’s image than God would have to look like us. God would have to be a human-like being. Maybe this is where the notion of an old man with a white beard originated. I now realize this is a superficial representation of God; however, like I stated before, one that many still have. And sadly, one that many still preach.

If God is light and love and all these other great things we must be that too. And if God is eternal, we must be that too, at least to some degree. And if we look like God - and God doesn’t look like a human being – than our true self, the image God created must not look like a human being either.

So what is our true self that looks like God? It would have to be our spirit, soul, or whatever word you choose to describe that. I feel like I have unlocked this amazing secret. I call it a secret because it wasn’t blatantly told to me before. I feel like I was lead to believe all these things about what God is and what we are and none of it was true. I don’t know if I misinterpreted the information, the facts were misrepresented, or if those teaching and preaching haven’t yet realized the truth.

Either way, I know feel confident that I know who I really am and what God really is. I see myself now as looking at things on a deeper level than before. Not accepting things just because I was told to by someone else. It brings a whole new meaning to the words “seek and ye shall find. Ask and ye shall receive.”

I want to re-iterate, maybe all along I was just confused on what was being said. I wonder if other people feel like they are actively being taught the version of my pre-Spiritual Awakening or the post-Spiritual Awakening. I’m curious if other people agree or disagree with my new stance on this issue.

I really wonder now if other people are actively searching, or just accepting. I really hope others are seeking, asking, and ultimately finding. I know that I am just at the beginning of this incredible journey, but I am looking forward to where it ultimately leads.

How do you know if you are right if you don’t know what others believe? 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Tourist of the Year - Competition submission letter

Why should I be the Tourist of the year?

I find it hard to believe anyone over the course of the past year has been more of a "tourist" than I. I recently quit my job to spend a year experience as much of the world as I could. I already had 23 countries and 5 continents to my credit, but I wanted to take time to see more while I am still young and able.

I loved the Lord of the Rings movies and was inspired by the scenery to the country for myself. In addition, Australia and Antarctica were the last two continents on my list to visit. Antarctica being very expensive and virtually inaccessible in the months of June and July, I decided I'd visit New Zealand. Being so close I figured I would take the short flight to Sydney as well.

My brother and myself spent 63 days traveling throughout the North and South Islands of New Zealand and 3 1/2 days in Sydney. It was winter time in the Southern Hemisphere so temperatures in New Zealand ranged from 9 degrees Fahrenheit to the low 50s, the further north we went. Due to expenses and part of the adventure we chose to camp virtually the entire time. Luckily we had very warm sleeping bags, but some of the nights were terribly cold, rainy, and windy. It must have rained 90% of the time, but it never put a damper on our spirits or our adventure.

We had some amazing adventures. We did paragliding in Queenstown, a 3 day kayaking trip in Abel Tasman National Park, a 17 mile trek across the Tongariro Crossing - the real "Mt. Doom." We also did an awesome caving experience in the Waitomo Caves. It was essentially walking down a river, in the dark, underground. It began with a 100 meter abseiling into a cavern, followed by glow worms, rushing cold water, and a few hours of repelling down waterfalls. It was one of the best experiences of my life. We then continued our journey by rafting down the Kaituna River. The river itself is very calm and relaxing, except for the fact that there are waterfalls along the way varying in size from a few meters, to 7 meters - 21 feet. It is the highest commercially rafted falls in the world. It was a highlight of my trip. Initially not planned, but time and weather altered our plans, and we made a go at it. There were no regrets whatsoever.

These were just some of the countless highlights we experienced during our time in New Zealand. I can't wait to go back.

We spent a few days in Australia visiting the beautiful and friendly city of Sydney and the surrounding Blue Mountains. It was time well spent. The peaceful of Sydney was refreshing. Next time I will need to dedicated a few months to explore more of this wonderful country.

I returned to the US unemployed. Thoughts crossed my mind to look for full-time work, but I wasn't ready to go down that path. In the meantime I stumbled across a photo contest on Facebook presented by Etihad Airways in partnership with Vayama. The contest was to submit your best travel photo. I had the perfect shot. While visiting New Zealand my brother brought a small chain, with a gold ring attached.

After completing our journey over the Tongariro Crossing we were watching the sunset on the mountains in the distance. He pulled out his ring and asked me to hold it over the mountain. It gave the impression that I was dropping the ring into Mt. Doom. The mountain was very small in the distance, while I was a larger presence in the foreground. It was great.

I submitted the photo and after months of voting by family, friends, relatives, and strangers I ultimately won. The grand was two tickets on Etihad Airways to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. I started making plans immediately, but due to funds my brother needed to work a little longer to make enough money to go along. Although the flights were covered, the rest of the trip wasn't. I was planning to visit multiple countries in the area since I didn't know when I would have the chance to return. I put the planning on hold, but still had my intentions.

Over the Christmas and New Year's Holiday my family wanted to go on a cruise. We did some research together and decided on a Norwegian Cruise to Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. Our rist stop was at the port of Costa Maya, Mexico. We visited the Mayan Ruins. Our next destination was Belize City, Belize. During our short stop we did cave tubing in Central Belize. It was a very good experience and a lot of fun. Nothing like anything I had done before throughout all of my travels.

Next we went to Roatan, Honduras. We spent the day at a local beach snorkeling. Our final destination was Tulum, Mexico where again we saw Mayan Ruins and a beautiful beach. I had never been on a cruise before,  but overall it was an enjoyable experience. It was much more relaxed and laid back than the fast-paced action packed traveling I am accustomed to, but I think given the chance every true tourist must go on the ultimate "tourist trap" - a cruise. I most likely won't be doing one again anytime soon - too expensive for such little return, but it was nice.

A few months passed and I was ready to embark on my trip to the Middle East. The plan was to visit Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain, and Jordan. I had been to Dubai before and loved the city. This was the perfect opportunity to return for a few days. Qatar was chosen because it was near by, a very safe country where I could learn about Islamic culture without fear of persecution or terrorist threats, and it is an up and coming country in terms of wealth and prosperity. They are hosting the World Cup in 2022 and I didn't want to wait that long before my chance to see this beautiful country.

Bahrain was also chosen because of it's safety, location, and relative ease of travel. We were stopped at the airport for over an hour while our passports were investigated. I was thinking we would be told we couldn't come in, but luckily they sent us on our way. There was a lot more history, especially Biblical history than I was aware of. We visited the supposed Tree of Life, from the Garden of Eden. I must say, it was in the middle of a very hot, windy, desert surrounded by oil wells. Not what I would expect for a Tree of "Life." It was a great experience though. I should mention, we rented a taxi for the day that drove us all over the country to various sites of interest. Amazingly, he had no clue where half the things we wanted to see were. We must have gotten lost half a dozen times, but it was all part of the adventure. Trying to navigate that country in our own car would have been a nightmare.

Our last stop was Jordan. It was the last place we went, and the last place I researched. Had I been aware of all the awesomeness that is Jordan, I would have allotted more time. The 4 days we had wasn't nearly enough. The highlights included Wadi Mujib - canyoning in a desert with sheer sandstone cliff walls - a beautiful hike. Probably the highlight of the trip for me. We also went to important Biblical sites such as Bethany Beyond the Jordan - where Jesus was baptized, Mt. Nebo - where Moses was shown the Promised Land, the Dead Sea - the water is disgustingly gross and burns every part of your body, but the floating was amazing. And lastly, Petra of course. It was much larger than I had been expecting. Thankfully the weather was perfect while we explored this vast complex. The rest of the trip it wasn't so pleasant. Temperatures in the 100's everyday. How people live there is insane.

We were being cheap on a few occasions and chose to walk rather than take taxis. We made that mistake the first time we went to Dubai and apparently didn't learn our lesson. Walking in the mid-afternoon in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Bahrain is not recommended, which is probably why so many of the locals stay indoors, hang out in malls, movie theaters, and museums. At night it's a different story, everyone comes out in droves.

Personally, I love Middle Eastern cultures. Many people have a backwards view of this region based on the media's portrayal, but the true Islamic Culture and people of this region are fascinating. One of my favorite places to visit. And the women are beautiful.

I was back from the Middle East and within days planning my next adventure. I had just spent time in a very hot, dry location, and the Texas summer was fast approaching. Three of the last four summers I spent in the southern hemisphere - South America, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and New Zealand/Australia and wanted a return to a cooler climate. My destination of choice - Iceland.

I went there with the hopes of learning about viking culture, the impact of volcanoes and glaciers on this tiny island. Instead I learned the unreal belief by many Icelanders in trolls, elves, little people, Christmas yule lads, hidden people, and a plethora of other fairy tale characters. It was a very eye opening experience. Not to mention the landscape is rugged, yet beautiful. It is a magical real life fairy tale land. It took some convincing, but staying strong in my intention I was able to convince my family to join me. In general I travel with just my brother since we have similar tastes and the same adventurous spirit, but having traveled so much already in the past year I needed some help with funding. Actually, my brother did, but I didn't mind either.

The flights were reasonably priced, but rental cars were ridiculous. To offset costs and to help with the convincing process I decided we would camp the whole two weeks as we traversed the Ring Road. After persistence I was able to convince my sisters, mom, and eventually my dad into joining the adventure. One of my sister's boyfriends joined as well.

We had our team of 7 ready to go. We saw some amazing sites - countless beautiful waterfalls, fjords, glaciers, volcanoes, and other worldly features. Along with the knowledge of Icelandic culture, history, and sagas the entire experience was perfect. Sadly two weeks wasn't enough time. Next time I go I will be planning a month or more, that's really the only way to be a true tourist.

In total I went to 11 countries in the past year, 8 of which I had never been to, and 4 continents. I am the "Tourist of the Year." The things I have seen, learned, and experienced has opened my eyes to a whole new world. In reality I am not a tourist. Tourists by definition only see and do, but are never fully immersed in a new culture, but instead are merely observers stuck in their own habits and lifestyle in a new country. I like to think of myself as more than a tourist, as an active visitor and contributor. Someone that wants to experience, but also learn. With this knowledge I like to shed light on the truth and use my stories to influence others to have an open mind and heart and to see for themselves the true beauty that is found all throughout our world.